Arsenal and Chelsea fans are racing to find flights to Baku, after both London football teams qualified for the Europa League final in the capital of Azerbaijan on 29 May.
Because of the challenges in reaching the former Soviet republic, supporters are likely to pay even more than Liverpool and Spurs fans heading for the Champions League final in Madrid on 1 June. It follows that there will be fewer supporters than at the senior final, but the experience will be much more exotic.
These are the key options for fans keen to reach the final – and also for travellers heading for the matches in the Euro 2020 finals next summer.
Where exactly is Baku?
As far from the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge as it is possible to be and still be within the confines of “Europe”: exactly the same latitude as Madrid, but further east than Baghdad, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, 2,469 miles from London.
Baku is the lowest-lying capital in the world, nearly 100 feet below ocean level (the Caspian Sea, like the Dead Sea, is below sea level as measured in the rest of the world).
When is the next flight from Heathrow?
At 10.05pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays on Azerbaijan Airlines, touching down at 6.35am the next day. But the flight out the day before the final and the return the day after are already full. So fans will need to find connections.
Istanbul is the main gateway to the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus, with frequent day connections from the New Istanbul Airport and a few from the second airport, Sabiha Gokcen.
Travelling out on Monday 27 May and back on Friday 31 May, fares are around £800-£800 on Turkish Airlines, for journeys that are typically between nine and 14 hours.
Arranging a stopover of at least 24 hours in Istanbul on the way out will cut the cost by £65 because of a reduction in Air Passenger Duty liability – though you will need to pay $20 (£15) for a Turkish e-visa.
Yes, but almost all of them involve travelling via Turkey and are also “self-connect” journeys where there is no guarantee of completing the journey if something goes wrong.
For example, the cheapest deal on Skyscanner on those days (27-31 May), £623, is outbound on Pegasus from Stansted to Izmir in Turkey then transferring to Turkish Airlines for a flight via Ankara to Baku. The return begins on Azerbaijan Airlines to Moscow – for which you may need an incredibly expensive and difficult Russian visa. Then there is a connection on UTAir to Berlin, and British Airways to Heathrow.
Can I go by train?
Yes. You can reach Istanbul from London St Pancras via Brussels or Paris and a variety of Continental trains, on the former route of the Orient Express.
The international rail website Seat61.com says: “It’s easy, cheap and comfortable, not to mention very scenic, to take a sleeper train right across Turkey from Istanbul or Ankara to Erzurum or Kars, then transfer by bus to the Georgian border at Sarp/Batumi for an onward train to Tbilisi.”
Having reached the Georgian capital, there are onward trains to Baku.
Will I need a visa?
Yes, but thankfully it is much easier than it was a couple of years ago. Apply on the Asan Visa website. The Foreign Office says: “If you’re applying for an e-visa to come to Azerbaijan for the Europa League final on 29 May 2019, please note in the “purpose of visit” of your e-visa application you should select ‘Europa League Final’.”
You can get an Azeri visa in three working days for $23 (£18), or pay $27 (£20) extra for a three-hour service
Where will I stay?
Because of Baku’s relative inaccessibility, there are likely to be far fewer football fans than in Madrid three days later. Thanks to Azerbaijan’s oil wealth, there are plenty of upscale hotels. Budget accommodation is rarer, but – as with the World Cup in Russia in 2018 – many Baku citizens are likely to rent out rooms at reasonably modest rates.
What else is there to see besides the football?
Walk the Caspian Sea promenade, dominated by Caspian Waterfront building, inspired by the Sydney Opera House.
Take the Baku funicular railway from the sea to Dağüstü Park, the landscaped terraces of which overlook the Bay of Baku and give the best view over the city.
Then explore the Old City, remarkably well preserved by the oppressive Soviet regime. The prime sight is the Maiden Tower, the 12th-century symbol of the city. Eat at Şirvanşah, which is as much a museum as it is a restaurant.